UPDATE (10/29/13): The progressive community is abuzz about a pair of posts from Ian Welsh and Jerome Armstrong about the “Failure of the Netroots.” My view is that Ian and Jerome are reflecting deep, often unspoken dismay among some progressives that the Obama presidency has been a disaster for their cause. Some of the most egregious national security practices and civil liberties violations of the Bush era have been expanded and enhanced under Obama, negating years of tireless, thankless activism by the netroots against the Bush-Cheney agenda.
Following is a post I wrote in response to a 2012 Daily Beast article about the decline of the liberal blogosphere which tracks some of the arguments made by Ian and Jerome. Note my (pre-Snowden) comments about Glenn Greenwald and my prediction that bloggers like Glenn would be among those who “help shape the national debate” in the years to come…
In 2005, I wrote “THE TRIANGLE: Limits of Blog Power,” about the power (and occasional powerlessness) of progressive blogs. Seven years later, the questions remain the same and the Daily Beast’s David Freedlander writes about the perceived decline of the liberal blogosphere, igniting a spirited debate among bloggers.
Jane Hamsher: “Pam has already touched on David Freedlander’s piece about the decline of independent blogs 10 years down the road. There are many things that are true in his long piece, but he somehow doesn’t manage to ask the rather obvious question — where’s the money? …The reason increasing numbers of blogs can’t keep the lights on is simple – Google. As I wrote on Bytegeist recently, news advertising revenues (both online and off) have tanked since 2000, and that money is going straight to Google, who passes pennies on to news outlets for every dollar they receive.”
Susie Madrak: ” As Jane Hamsher points out, we lost revenue over Google ad practices. (Not to mention the Obama campaign’s refusal to buy ads directly from blogs. Guess they showed us, huh?) But I liked Pam Spaulding’s take best. Like me, Pam is just trying to stay afloat with her health problems…”
Pam Spaulding: “It’s not that independent political blogging is toast — after all the longevity of a blog post in the historical record far outweighs a short message on social media. A blog essay has more lasting influence; the problem is independent blogs don’t have sufficient value in today’s commercial space to sustain their existence — save for the lucky few people who have been able to monetize (or fundraise) for theirs to continue to exist.”
Raven Brooks: “The dynamics of the Netroots may have changed since its beginnings in 2004, but the influence has grown. Freedlander’s premise that people of influence dismiss progressive bloggers is simply not true. Not a day goes by without a staffer, candidate or elected official asking for advice on how to reach bloggers–and get money and support from their readers.”
Vindicated by new polls, progressive bloggers and activists will determine President Obama’s political fate
The defining conflict of the Obama presidency is not between the White House and Republicans. It’s not between the White House and the Tea Party. It’s between President Obama and the left, specifically between Obama and progressive opinion-makers and online activists.
It’s no coincidence that the angriest barbs from this White House have been directed at the netroots. And it’s no surprise that the media and political establishment – along with a vitriolic cadre of Obama supporters – are mortified by the principled left, simultaneously dismissing them as bit players and accusing them of being ingrates who are damaging Obama’s reelection prospects (hint: you can’t be both).
I’ve repeated a version of this thesis for years: a handful of influential progressive opinion-makers are canaries in the coal mine, propounding and presaging views and arguments later adopted by rank and file Democrats.
It’s been that way since the dawn of the blogosphere and has only been magnified with Twitter and other online platforms. Just as the netroots laid the groundwork for the eventual downfall of the Bush presidency, the sharp, insistent, principled critiques of President Obama emanating from the left on civil liberties, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, secrecy, executive power, the economy, war, among other issues, have had a profoundly outsized effect on perceptions of this president.
Recent polls (including Gallup, which shows a double-digit decline among liberals) indicate significant erosion of support for Obama among groups who propelled him to victory in 2008, reinforcing the idea that reality is catching up with netroots criticism. This crumbling of support is typically attributed by pundits to the poor economy, but the problem is more complicated: it’s the poor economy coupled with the sense (fair or unfair) that Barack Obama has no convictions, no moral center, nothing for which he will take an unwavering stand.
That perception of a lack of convictions can’t be attributed solely to attacks from the right, since they can be discounted as partisan. It’s when the left makes that argument that conventional wisdom congeals.
How can the Tea Party exert such outsized influence?
Is President Obama an awful negotiator incapable of getting progressive results or a good negotiator getting exactly the anti-progressive results he wants?
Is liberal activist anger at Obama a problem or does the White House welcome it?
Do Democrats stand for anything? If so, what?
Are Republicans reckless enough to destabilize the US economy for political ends? If so, how do they get away with it?
Is Washington really broken or does it work just fine for the rich and powerful?
Is America a democracy, kleptocracy, or corporatocracy?
Are our best days ahead of us or behind us?
On the left, and specifically the online activist left, early disappointment with Obama and Democratic leaders has given way to outright disgust. The level of frustration and rage is at a boiling point and Obama is fortunate that there’s no viable primary opponent or he’d have a problem with a flood of energy, money and media attention flowing to that candidate. Granted, he and his strategists can take solace in strong (early) fundraising and relative stability in the polls among Democrats, but the netroots are canaries in the coal mine, and if I had to bet, I’d say that the president’s re-election campaign will rue the day the netroots were spurned.
You know things are bad when Democrats are message-hopping faster then John McCain in 2008 and when Democratic leaders and pundits take comfort in comparing President Obama’s approval ratings to the low points of previous presidents.
We shouldn’t find much solace knowing that Reagan also experienced a trough and climbed out of it. History and politics may be cyclical, but life is not. Our trajectory on global warming, for instance, is linear: the longer we allow the forces of denial to hold sway, the more likely we are to hit the point of irreversibility.
Moreover, the election of Barack Obama was a singular moment: the first African-American president elected to replace the most reactionary and radical administration in our history, following a campaign where a woman nearly shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. The force and momentum of those factors and the unprecedented engagement and hope it generated should never have dissipated so rapidly. This is not some mundane political cycle, this is a travesty.
It didn’t have to be this way.
There was a telling paragraph in Peter Baker’s recent Education of a President:
“We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.”
It’s easy to cross the line from confidence, an essential component of success, to over-confidence, an ingredient of failure. Thinking back to the (justified) euphoria around President Obama’s inauguration, it’s easy to understand why many Democrats crossed that line. But that’s not to say there weren’t warning signs of the disaster to come. The flaps over Donnie McClurkin and Rick Warren were portents, signaling to Obama and Democratic lawmakers that the transition from hope to action was beginning.
I warned about over-confidence as far back as March of 2009, when I argued against bickering with Rush Limbaugh from the White House podium:
I know it’s hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn — the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there’s nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh. Feeding that machine, expanding and enhancing it is a mistake. A serious one.
It’s a truism that victory makes every decision seem genius, defeat, the reverse. Democrats, now in power, have a sense of triumph that makes every decision feel smart, every chess move a checkmate. Thus the “Rush strategy” foisted on those of us who have spent the past decade trying to point out how noxious and pernicious Limbaugh and his ilk have been (and continue to be), and how detrimental the anger they’ve stoked.
Empowering Limbaugh in the hopes of a bank-shot against Republicans will yield the opposite result: Limbaugh will become more powerful, Republicans will relish his increased influence and allow him to do their dirty work.
It’s easy to feel like the old era is gone, the old demons slain, that we WON, that nobody’s afraid of the once-vaunted Republican attack machine. … but the seeds of Democratic defeat are planted not by Republican elected officials, who, like McCain, will carry the Bush albatross for years to come, but by those who can freely fan the flames of outrage, who can fight dirty, who can bend and break the rules with impunity, who can tear down their opponents’ integrity and character, and whose apparent reward (as in the case of Ann Coulter) is to be given yet a larger platform. No thanks.
My narrow point was that the dirty work of battling Limbaugh should not rise to the level of the White House. It would only empower him and his blathering cohorts. Surrogates could do that. My larger point was that the lesson from campaign 2008 should not be that there was now an indomitable, web-fueled Democratic force that would sweep away all rightwing resistance. If anything, the right would now fight harder and uglier. Decades in the making, the well-oiled rightwing attack machine wasn’t about to sputter out and die.
So who exactly was the White House official referring to when he/she told Peter Baker “we were overconfident”? I doubt it’s President Obama, since he is too disciplined, introspective and self-aware to lapse into over-confidence. I don’t really think it’s a single individual (though Rahm Emanuel’s famous bluster is emblematic of it) but it’s more a mindset that took over the White House and Democratic leadership, a mindset that denigrated the left’s concerns, that toyed with Limbaugh, that embraced faux-bipartisanship, that began taking measurements for Mount Rushmore, that scoffed at the Tea Party, that relied on an ephemeral email list and the myth of online dominance to convince itself that the GOP was permanently marginalized.
The problem with over-confidence as opposed to mere confidence is that the former makes you insular, the latter motivates you to solicit – and appreciate – external advice. The former leads Democratic insiders to slap down the ‘petulant’ left, the latter compels them to crowdsource strategy rather than rely on the “wisdom” of the same old Beltway strategists, pundits and pollsters.
The big question now is whether the impending electoral train wreck will convert Democratic over-confidence to defeatism or whether the White House can find confidence where they should have sought it all these months, in core progressive principles and values.